Halls of Fame should keep O.J., add Cannon, too

June 20, 1994|By John Steadman

Linking citizenship, integrity and morality to athletic ability shouldn't be a prerequisite for election to a sports hall of fame. It's the ideal way but, unfortunately, it's not realistic.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame judges a man exclusively on game performances and forgets how he chooses to lead his life. The College Football Hall of Fame does the same thing -- except there's an important clause that deals with character.

So what does this do to O. J. Simpson, who is to be arraigned on a double murder charge and is already enshrined in the two halls of fame? Is he to be banished from these Valhallas of football distinction?

Will this be part of the price he must pay in personal shame if found guilty of killing two people and then trying to run away from the Los Angeles Police Department after his arrest was ordered?

The Pro Football Hall of Fame won't make a move, unless advised to depart from its rules by the urging of commissioner Paul Tagliabue or the hall's board of directors, which has a federal judge among its membership.

As a sportswriter who voted for Simpson's election to both the college and pro football halls of fame, let it be said with strong conviction that what he was able to do on the field should be the only yardstick of evaluation. The serious allegations of his involvement in a dual murder, however, makes the hall of fame issue, comparatively speaking, a minor cause for concern.

But Simpson represents a definite problem for the College Football Hall of Fame. Within its entrance rules is a regulation regarding how a candidate conducts his life. It applies before selection but what about after enshrinement? The College Football Hall of Fame -- and the Professinal Football Hall of Fame -- don't have any representatives sentenced to prison for committing a crime.

Their "records" were established by running, passing, kicking, blocking, tackling and not "pulling time" in a penitentiary or correctional facility. This is as it should be. Put the focus exclusively on performance. But the College Football Hall of Fame may have a problem with the Simpson involvement that could play out to it being accused of having a double-standard.

The field needs to be level for all participants. Here's what happened. The College Football Hall of Fame in February of 1983 voted in Billy Cannon, like Simpson, a winner of the Heisman Trophy, which is emblematic of being the year's leading college football player. But before Cannon could be officially enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame the following December, the award was denied after he got into trouble in July.

Instead of being immortalized, as Simpson has been, Cannon had the highly coveted honor pulled away, yes, stripped from his outstretched hands, before he ever got the chance to receive it. He was in the College Football Hall of Fame and five months later he wasn't.

It evolved in such a convoluted and embarrassing way because Dr. Cannon, then an affluent dentist in Baton Rouge, La., holding degrees from three different universities, got involved in a counterfeit scheme. The leaders of the College Football Hall of Fame quickly excommunicated him, depriving him entry after, in fact, he had been officially elected.

Will the College Football Hall of Fame take Simpson, because of what has occurred, out of its hallowed sanctuary or is that impossible? Does a different code of morality prevail once you are a member of the Hall of Fame? Is a man, if an enshrinee, allowed to violate the laws of the land without jeopardizing his exalted position of post-football achievement?

Meanwhile, in professional baseball, Pete Rose, implicated in gambling charges, has the credentials to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame but has been denied eligibility. His name hasn't even been placed on the ballot. He's personna non grata. Supporters of Rose will be awaiting the outcome of the Simpson trial to see if the murder charges are proven and, if so, what the two football halls of fame do about it.

Already, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio, visitors are seeking out the Simpson Hall of Fame display. He's drawing unfortunate attention, motivated by a macabre interest, from tourist spectators who look at his bronzed bust, his No. 32 jersey and the helmet he wore with the Buffalo Bills.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame doesn't have to act. It can keep Simpson in place among its deified heroes because good citizenship has nothing to do with getting elected. But the College Football Hall of Fame has a decision to make and, since there's precedent in the Cannon case, what does it do about Simpson if he's convicted? Keep him in, drum him out or put him on probation?

The easiest solution is to abandon the good citizenship rule, to measure players for their deeds on the field, and let things stand as they are. If Cannon is prevented from entering the hall of fame then Simpson, if the same interpretation applies, has to be considered upon review of the facts for a discharge that the military might term less than honorable.

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